The Indian hockey team getting their play right in the opposition striking circle is a sight to behold, and against China on Tuesday, they did exactly that, nine times in 60 minutes! Though the pitch had become sluggish owing to incessant rain, India had enough firepower to dismantle China in their penultimate group match of the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan and confirm their place in the semi-final. India now have 10 points after three wins and one draw. On Wednesday, Sreejesh and Co play Malaysia in the final group match, en encounter which will decide final group positions.
On Tuesday, Akashdeep (9th and 39th minute), Affan Yousuf (19th and 40th), Jasjit Singh Kular (22nd and 51st), Rupinder Pal Singh (25th), Nikkin Thimmaiah (34th) and Lalit Upadhyay (37th) all scored for India.
The in-form Indians were never going to be tested by China. Indeed, it wasn't the result itself but the margin of victory that was the surprise. In the 23 matches played against China, India have won 17 and lost just three. The last encounter between the two sides came at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, when India won 2-0 despite China playing a packed midfield that kept Indians away from the striking circle.
However, China did contribute to one of the darkest chapters in Indian hockey; at the 2006 Doha Asian Games, China beat India 3-2, which put in motion a chain of events that ensured India didn't qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
But times have changed. The India of 2016 play to a rhythm, and when they do that, their fluidity is beautiful to watch. China is on a path of revival, and in Yu Xin, Zhang Taozhu and Lin Changliang, they have a set of forwards who can cut a defence down with their speed and runs from either flank, especially the left.
On Tuesday, the Chinese tried hitting back with swift counterattacks, especially in the third and fourth quarters, but the Indian defence, strengthened by the return of Birendra Lakra, probably one of the best tacklers in the world, ensured that China didn't get the consolation of returning with a few goals.
Rupinder Pal Singh also had a good game; he played outside the striking circle and cut away at least five midfield crosses. Whenever Rupinder stayed back, Jasjit Singh Kular was a sight, galloping the length of the pitch to strike two goals. His first was marvelous effort; after receiving the ball back from Talwinder, he almost dived full length to smash the ball in. Then, in the 51st minute, he was perfectly positioned on top of the circle to get a free ball, which he whacked in with such power that it almost tore through the net.
The scoring spree started in the ninth minute when Akashdeep latched onto a Chinese back pass that didn't carry to a defender, ran into the circle, and with a reverse hit, beat the goalkeeper Wang Hongyu. It was slightly surprising the Chinese didn't pull out the goalkeeper after the fifth or sixth goals had been scored.
The first quarter was roughly even, and India only got momentum going in the second, when goals from Affan Yousuf, Kular and Rupinder Pal Singh put them ahead. Rupinder, India's penalty corner specialist, got his eighth goal of the tournament.
China had two penalty corners in the third quarter and in the absence of Sreejesh, Indian goalkeeper Akash Chikte pulled off a few saves to maintain India's lead. At the other end, India scored four more goals in the third quarter. In the 39th minute, Akashdeep rounded off a lovely move, picking up a pass from the left of the circle, before speeding in and swerving past a few defenders and smashing the ball in from the top of the circle.
One minute later, a Sardar Singh pass created their eighth goal.
The final quarter saw just the one solitary goal. The pace had slowed by now and India were content just rotating the ball on the flanks. A few moves got close, but the Chinese defence managed to play tightly around their circle.
"I want the team to get the goals. And every player has to put in his best irrespective of the opposition," Indian coach Roelant Oltmans had said before the match. An emphatic win like this would have certainly made him happy.
Up next is a clash against hosts Malaysia; it promises to be a close battle. Malaysian coach Stephen van Huizen believes that India's former coach Terry Walsh might provide some answers for the hosts to carry the battle to the Indians. Walsh is the High Performance Director of Malaysia and every aspect of Malaysian hockey is under the former Australian player and coach. "It's great to have Terry on our side," van Huizen said. "He knows India and world hockey very well. And it would be a great match. We know that India is a top team but we will do our best."
Terry Walsh's departure from Indian hockey after winning the Asian Games gold was controversial and never fully explained, although a fallout between Walsh and Hockey India president Narinder Batra was obvious. The last time the two nations met, it was in the 2015 Azlan Shah Cup, which India won 6-1.
In the last match between both the nations, India beat Malaysia 6-1 in the 2015 Azlan Shah. The hosts are yet to lose a match. More than just hockey is at stake here.
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Updated Date: Oct 26, 2016 10:11:11 IST